I’m ashamed to admit that a relatively large part of my paycheck goes to Anthropologie each month or season, so as I became aware that I was in the vicinity of one of their rarer garden stores as I passed through Connecticut last week, I had to make a slight detour for the Westport Terrain. What a store–I was a bit overwhelmed, which doesn’t often happen to me in a shop scenario. Actually, it’s a combination nursery/garden store/ housewares store/gift shop/bar-restaurant–there was a lot going on when I arrived, too much for me! I certainly hadn’t planned on getting any plants as I was on the road (and I like nurseries to be a bit more dirty) but I thought I might get some planters–as I had never really replaced the ones that were stolen last summer. But there were too many planters to choose from! And too many watering cans, baskets, and vessels of all kinds–along with candles and lanterns and wreaths and everything else. Sensory overload–though I plan to return, better prepared, in the not-too-distant future.
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It was a very busy weekend in Salem and Essex Country, encompassing the first seventeenth-century Saturday of the season, the Salem Arts Festival, Shakespeare on the common, open houses and garden tours, an ice cream social and a cider launch party, among other happenings. The weather was absolutely spectacular, sunny, dry, and in the low 80s, enticing “this is why we live in New England” comments everywhere I went. Salem was packed with tourists: I also heard many languages. I was outside all weekend and am paying for it this morning, with sunburn, itchy bug bites, and lots and lots of work to do–but I don’t care. After I plant the beautiful herbs that I purchased up in Salisbury in my garden, I’ll lock myself in my office!
Scenes from my first June weekend: hula hoop canopy and fish at the Salem Arts Festival, Derby House herb garden, something’s finally happening at the “Crotchet House”, launch party for Salem-made cider (really good–much dryer than other varieties of hard cider that I have had here in the U.S.), the Herb FARMacy in Salisbury, Massachusetts, and the Dole-Little House in nearby Newbury.
I am not fond of blue-and-white china (or anything blue, to tell you the truth), nor do I particularly like the Willow pattern, one of the most popular and replicated in the western world for several centuries. But I do love both the idea and the act of updating something that is classically familiar—even overly familiar–in a clever and creative way. So when I saw a little story about Calamityware, in which flying monkeys and flying saucers, along with robots and Renaissance sea creatures, are right there on the plate along with the traditional “Chinese” structures, figures, and landscapes, I went right to the source: artist Don Moyer’s site, on which his earlier drawings are coming to life (or pottery) on a Kickstarter-funded production line. So many things about these plates appeal to me (despite their color): they are blatantly anachronistic, purely whimsical, and perfect examples of my favorite fusion of past and present, traditional and modern, new and old. The flying monkeys were first off the line, and we may see kings and oligarchs later, though surely they won’t be as scary.
Calamityware is not the first variation on the Blue Willow pattern; in fact it was inspirational almost from its inception–and wildly popular. I’ve got a bowl full of Willow shards uncovered in my back yard when I was digging out my herb garden. Willow ware was first produced in the late eighteenth century by Thomas Minton, an English potter who adapted designs featured on Chinese export porcelain for domestic production. There was no patent protection, and his competitors–Wedgwood, Royal Worcester, Spode–began producing their own Blue Willow, and continued to do so for the next two centuries. In an early stroke of advertising genius, a story was composed to sell the dishes: when a powerful Chinese lord discovers that his daughter has fallen in love with his lowly clerk, he locks her up in a secluded pagoda behind a fence and betrothes her to a rich and elderly duke. The young couple flee before the wedding, but are hunted down and killed (there are different versions of their deaths). True love prevails, however, as the gods transform the lovers into a pair of lovebirds which remain together forever, hovering above the willow tree that once shaded their clandestine meetings. The story expanded the reach of Blue Willow–beyond the pottery business and into popular culture: poems, books, textiles, and pictures told the Blue Willow love story over and over again in the Victorian era, and after.
Spode Blue Willow plate, c. 1800-1820, Victoria & Albert Museum; Joyce Mercer (1896-1965) illustration, 1920s.
And now, Willow ware seems to be having a moment, once again. In fact, this “moment” seems to encompass the past decade or so, or perhaps the pattern, in all of its variations (and colors–I could go for the red), is always having a moment. And that, of course, is the definition of classic. In 2005 ceramicist Robert Dawson digitally-designed a line of “After Willow” dishes for Wedgwood, and more recently we have Pokemon Willow by Olly Moss (note the lovebirds, still flying above!) and there are more calamities to come.
As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me: Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.
Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).
Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)
Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.
A beautiful brick Colonial Revival house in Salem came on the market last week, so I stopped by to check it out on my way to school. Fairfield Street, its location, is just off Lafayette in the midst of the area that was completely devastated by the Salem Fire of 1914. Almost immediately after the Fire, its property owners committed to a plan of relatively rapid rebuilding and this strident street emerged as prime evidence of Salem’s renewal. This is certainly the theme of Salem author/photographer Mary Harrod Northend’s article in the Fall 1920 edition of The House Beautiful: “Worthwhile Houses Built in Salem since the Great Conflagration of 1914″, which features 11 Fairfield Street along with its neighboring structures–many built of solid, more flame-retardant materials like brick and stucco–built to last, with myriad details representative of their owners’ and architects’ appreciation of the “old-time architecture” of Salem. In the particular case of 11 Fairfield, the owner was George W. Hooper, owner of the Salem Laundry, and the architect was Robert. C. Boit of Boston: the house is dated 1914, so they must have made their contract while the embers of that June were still smoldering!
The George W. Hooper House, designed by Robert C. Boit, 1914, as featured in its present-day listing and in The House Beautiful, no. 49 (1920)–on the right.
Today Bonhams Auctions in New York is selling off over 300 items from one of the largest private collections of historical emphemera in the world: “Treasures from the Caren Collection. How History Unfolds” includes printed and manuscript items dating from the sixteenth century to the near-present, and every single one represents its moment in an intimate way. That’s the power of paper, and Bonham’s digital catalog–with zoomable images–really brings you into the picture. Even though I had tons of stuff to do yesterday (and it was a sunny spring day), I couldn’t resist perusing the items, including beautiful contemporary prints of the Spanish Armada and Sir Francis Drake, broadsides covering everything from Charles I’s trial to the Great London Fire to the Salem Witch Trials and all the big events of the American Revolution, Civil War daguerreotypes, baseball ephemera, and assorted letters, maps, photographs, tickets and posters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are beautiful, touching photographs of Native American chiefs from the later nineteenth century, as well as not-so-beautiful –but equally haunting–images of victims of war and lynching. Lots of little slips of paper that you wouldn’t think would be “historical”, but most definitely are. Below is a sampling of items that appealed to me, but really, I could have put every single lot into this post!
1. The Spanish Armada, 1588/ 2. The “Deplorable” Fire of London, after 1666/ 3. The first British edition of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693/4. Garnerin’s balloon and parachute, 1802/5. Drawing of Generals Washington and Lee by Arathusa Graves, 1802/ 6. Photograph of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862/7. A UFO appearance in 1897/8. What Congress has Done, 1900/9. March on Washington, 1969.
Samuel Emery (1787-1882) made compasses and other nautical and mathematical instruments here in Salem for more than half a century–both during and after the city’s great age of sail. His work can still be seen today, at auctions and in museums, but most often in museum shops. Recently I stumbled across one, and then another and another, reproduced and transformed into pendants and pins. What made Emery’s compasses so decorative? It’s not the fleur-de-lis marking north–that is traditional from the fourteenth century when French makers used a fancy “T”, resembling a flower, to mark the north wind or Tramontana. The two surveyors’ compasses below are nearly identical and were both made by Salem craftsman: the one on the left by John Jayne and the smaller one on the right by Emery, both sold at Skinner auctions.
Samuel Emery Box Label, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.
I’m sure Emery’s instruments were well-made or he wouldn’t have been in business for as long as he was, but his designs look pretty conventional for their time. I suspect that the reason Emery’s compasses are still for sale is the original copper plate in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum, enabling fresh and adapted impressions and models to be made, as well as the traditional appeal of the compass rose (first in maritime communities, then more broadly), which has emblazoned textiles, pottery, and other decorative accessories for centuries, so why not jewelry–among other things–now?
Compass Rose brooches from the PEM and Morgan shops (just click on the picture and you’ll get there); Early Connecticut pieced quilt with Mariner’s Compass, Northeast Auctions; Sunderland Pink Lustre bowl, c. 1820-1830, Victoria & Albert Museum; Better than Jam fabric.
For some time I’ve been captivated by a covered cup and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the pieces were made by the Niderviller Manufactory in France just before the Revolution but somehow the combination of two illusory design motifs–faux bois and trompe l’oeil–make them seem very modern to me. I love everything about them and want to learn more and see more.
It was relatively easy to find more faience from the Niderviller Manufactory: below are a plate dated 1774 in a French private collection and another at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, along with a tray and teapot dated the very same year in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Look at the little nail on the teapot, “tacking” the print to its surface–amazing! The Niderviller Factory was a rare pre-revolutionary aristocratic-owned operation situated in the Duchy of Lorraine where it was exempt from French laws protecting the royal monopoly of the Sèvres porcelain factory. Production at Niderviller commenced by 1750, but I seem to like the more whimsical creations of the 1773-93 period when the factory was owned by the Count de Custine. The Minneapolis plate below is signed by “J. Deutsch” which is a rather imprecise name–I wonder if this almost-anonymous artist was responsible for the other trompe l’oeil pieces? The signatures look similar on the Victoria & Albert tray and teapot. Despite the Count de Custine’s sympathy for both the American and French Revolutions, he was guillotined in 1793, but the Niderville Factory survived both the Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and continues to operate today. Trompe l’oeil decoration was wildly popular in the eighteenth century, but the combination of “wood” and “paper” and ceramics is a little more unusual–though I did find a few more examples beyond Niderviller: an early nineteenth-century plate produced at the Imperial Vienna Porcelain Factory and a very rare “solitaire” set, also made in Vienna. I’m not as taken with these Vienna pieces: they lack the whimsy and detail (folded edges) of the Niderviller pieces.
This faux bois/faux papier decoration doesn’t have to be confined to ceramics, of course: we can and should go back–and forward. Both the faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques seem to have been perfected in the seventeenth-century paintings of still-life artists like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c. 1630-after 1683) and Edwaert Colyer (or Collier, 1642-1708), which must have influenced the ceramic artists of the next century. The “wooden” background and affixed objects certainly seem very real in the former’s Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Bag (1872), one of many “paneled” and “cabinet” paintings at the National Gallery of Denmark, and Colyer’s letter racks and “portraits” often have faux bois backgrounds (and folded corners).
Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Barg, National Gallery of Denmark; Edwaert Colyer, Trompe l’Oeil Portrait of a Lady, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery.
Both faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques continue to be expressed and adapted up to the present day, with varying degrees of detail and in various mediums–but combinations are a bit more rare. In the realm of ceramics, I have yet to see anything as appealing as the Niderviller pieces, but I’m always looking. ….so far the closest I’ve come–not too close at all, really—are plates in the “Texquite” pattern from Bongenre, made in that most modern of materials: melanine.
Otis Kaye (1885-1974), The One Key to It All, 20th Century, Private Collection, photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library; Melanine plate in the “Texquite” pattern, Bongenre.
One of my favorite hobbies/timekillers is stalking historic houses for sale online. My “territory” used to be exclusively local (so I could hang on to the notion that I was actually searching for a house that I might possibly buy, I suppose) but now my real-estalking knows no bounds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation runs a property sale site that I check in with periodically; yesterday I popped on there and quickly spotted Santarella for sale! Santarella is the ultimate east-coast storybook house, built by the English sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson in the 1920s in the western Massachusetts town of Tyringham. I posted about it a couple of years ago on my way out west. At that time, I hadn’t realized the size of the Santarella compound, which includes not only the storied main house, but several romantic silo structures, a c. 1750 farmhouse, and an absolutely charming English shingle cottage, all on four acres and for $2,590.000. A bargain, I say: if I could make the mortgage (and the commute), I’d snap it right up.
Santarella for sale: the main house in snow and summer, the colonial homestead, and the English cottage.
Even farther from home, several other houses appealed to me particularly on the National Trust site–actually all did, but this post cannot go on forever! My highlights: the 1763 “Arch House” in Waterford, Virginia (I love 18th century rowhouses, and this one looks unique), “Eagles Nest”, a restored 17th century manor house in a beautiful Virginia setting, a Greek Revival in upstate New York (for under $200,000–in a really charming town), a brick Maryland Federal, and a stunning 1828 brick house in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania which features one of the most beautiful hallways I have ever seen. Obviously I could go on and on: you can check out plantations, churches, rectories, banks, taverns, hotels, a “whiskey bonding barn”, the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s honeymoon “suite”, and save an imperiled Connecticut saltbox/gambrel from pending demolition.
From top: the Arch House in Waterford, Virginia; “Eagles Nest” exterior and front hallway/staircase; Cambridge, New York Greek Revival; the Davis House in Clarksburg, Maryland: exterior and architectural detail; front hall of the 1828 Harriet Lane House in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. All listings at the National Trust; another site to check out for Mid-Atlantic historic homes is the Historic Homes Network. For New England: Antique Homes Magazine.
New Year’s Day is generally and literally about dismantling for me: taking down the elaborate holiday displays I assembled only weeks before on my eight fireplace mantels and all of the other decorations around the house. The tree is relatively easy compared to everything else, frankly, and as I write it’s out on the sidewalk awaiting its transport to Dead Horse Beach for the annual Christmas Tree bonfire this weekend. I’m an habitual seasonal decorator but now I’m wondering if I should reign in this instinct a bit….that’s certainly an attainable New Year’s resolution! In between bouts of dismantling I wasted copious amounts of time browsing the web for the perfect 2014 datebook because the one I bought at Target the other day is so devoid of any aesthetic whimsy that I fear I will not use it, and I need to: this is another area where my life has changed since becoming chair of my department–I now need to keep track of everyone’s dates and not just my own. As usual, I had Turner Classic Movies on in the background, and several movies distracted me from my dismantling mission as well, most notably the original (1968) Thomas Crown Affair. I had to figure out exactly where Steve McQueen lived on Beacon Hill in Boston (85 Mount Vernon Street–the 2nd Harrison Gray Otis house!!!) and examine each one of Faye Dunaway’s amazing outfits. And then, of course, I had to keep checking the weather reports as we have a big snowstorm bearing down on us: it looks like I will have several days inside to come up with some new displays for my mantels.
A day in the life: outside my bedroom window, the calm before the storm; a Christmas mantel before its dismantling; I love these little fabric trees from Quietude Quilts so I’m going to keep them up for a while; great Christmas presents: Wanderlust plates made in Rhode Island; Jessica Hische pocket planner; 85 Mount Vernon Street, Boston.